Bridging the digital divide

What role can telco play in enabling underserved communities alongside development programs? The short answer is connectivity.

Tamara Blanche, Communications Professional

Amdocs Networks

02 Aug 2022

Bridging the digital divide

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While governments worldwide have been tackling the issue for some time now, it is important to remember the key role telco plays in steering community development programs in the right direction. Information Communication Technology and services are equipped to enable underserved communities in their development.

The last 2 decades have seen increased uptake in the number of people with access to computers and handheld devices. Unfortunately, these technological advances have not been linear for all communities, and this means there is still a proportion of the global society without access to modern technology or the internet. The digital divide refers to the difference between communities that do and do not have access to connectivity. This connectivity pertains to the digital capabilities and capacities of these different communities through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and services, which refers to the infrastructure and components that enable modern computing - and this often directly correlates with socioeconomic well-being. According to The World Bank, for every 10% of further connectivity in a developing economy, there is typically a 1.38% increase in GDP.

The core problem of the digital divide is symptomatic of a deeper issue in economic development that characterizes entire nations. Stemming from low education levels, poor infrastructure development, and low quality of life/income levels, the effects are felt across several sectors: education, employment, communication, politics, consumer satisfaction, public health, community involvement, misinformation from governments, and emergency services. While the pandemic shifted and accelerated the demand for connectivity and tech, these economic issues have not changed. This ever-widening gap has served to undermine industrialization in the developing world by creating dependency and deepened insufficiencies. Although some initiatives tackle the digital divide issue through provisioning incentives, awareness campaigns, and funding citizens’ technology experiences have not always considered the pain points within the community that can be a further barrier to adoption. It is worth identifying the main shortcomings of the digital divide, by locale, and creating a roadmap suitable for individual communities.

The impacts of the digital divide span wide and color the conversation around adoption. Of the countless studies tasked with understanding the digital divide, the following 5 categories are identified as the main sectors with the most obvious discrepancies:

  1. Education: a rich reservoir of knowledge and information, skills & expertise are organized & conveyed over the internet. Access & availability of ICT are associated with academic achievements, research skills, and vocational aspirations, so it is unsurprising that governments are striving to address the inadequacies of ICT equipment in underserved education systems by installing computer labs, and provisioning laptops to students
  2. Economy: there is a strong linear correlation between telecommunication services & economic growth – the socioeconomic divide is both a cause & consequence of the digital divide. While adoption enables people with more economic opportunities, the integration of ICT affects the successes of businesses already online & influences the circulation of resources among a wider audience. As it stands, developing areas cannot compete with more developed ones & thus remain dependent on grants, donations, & initiatives to become more self-sufficient
  3. Social: ICT services are critical in enhancing social interactions by transcending socio-economic boundaries. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram have proven that technology can be highly influential in community relations, discussions around public affairs, & facilitating communication between loved ones & strangers with common interests alike. While these interactions can sometimes cause more harm than good, people are given exposure to broader ideas, trends & information through these social interactions to guide them within a wider social understanding
  4. Culture: while technology can affect different cultures in different ways, integral components of culture like art, communications & relationships have evolved because of it. Arguably, some customs & traditions have undergone tremendous changes through digital transformation, but the same cannot be said across the board as people in technology-deficient countries have not experienced it
  5. Society: the digital divide today has become a contributing factor in the socio-economic divides between people – with the access to & use of ICT services as the dividing line. Affordability, age, & literacy levels (all or some of which can be further delineated across racial or ethnic divides) are how people are classified within the categories of the “haves” & “have nots”

While governments worldwide have been tackling this issue for some time now, it is important to remember the key role telco plays in steering these programs in the right direction. Equipped with the technical understanding, and prowess to enable communities toward connectivity through partnerships with local service providers and vendors to ensure ongoing programs empowering local communities. There are 5 basic solutions to addressing the digital divide:

  1. Increased affordability: one of the top barriers to adoption in both developed & underserved communities comes down to the price points of both products & connectivity plans. While these prices are often governed by patent fees, taxes & electricity fees of production, partnerships & collaborations between enterprises are in the unique position to create tailored plans for eager customers. Additionally, government subsidies can help further entice lower-income earners to invest in these digital tools
  2. Empowering users: most people who enjoy standard connectivity agree with its endless benefits of it, but some underserved communities may not necessarily think of it as an advantage or priority. “Participation inequality” is worth addressing through a myriad of approaches to educating the public – particularly in more underserved communities – about the benefits of connectivity, ranging from government aid programs to CSR initiatives by the telco or tech companies focused on addressing local needs
  3. Network infrastructure development: connectivity relies on infrastructure to immediately transfer data, exchange & store information between 2 or more devices in different parts of the world at any given moment. The lack of proper infrastructure in third world countries entails poor to no internet connection. Broadband & wireless technology aimed to usher in faster, more reliable, & widespread opportunities for connectivity but could not overcome the challenges of more rural areas achieving connectivity. Today, there are better-suited large-scale, cost-effective solutions that telco providers are already implementing in rural environments through satellite technologies, cloud-native software, & 5G
  4. Address the gender gap in accessibility: Statistics show a significant discrepancy between male & female users online in Africa and Arab states. While this is also true in other corners of the globe, the common denominator in underserved communities worldwide is that in low and middle-income countries, more women do not even have access to technological devices. To address social justice issues like this one, programs & initiatives need to have a special focus on tackling the roots of the gender gaps within these communities. A shared effort between the private sector, alongside governmental & non-governmental organizations to address poverty, relevance & public awareness of the plight of women without internet access
  5. Improve the relevance of online content: some research claims that another top barrier to adoption in some countries is the lack of relevant content – ranging from the lack of content, services, web, or mobile applications in their native language to the lack of public awareness or literacy to understand the content online. Encouraging the development of content and applications relevant to the local populace & driving further innovation in content creation for rural communities, like farmers, can help entice higher demand for connectivity within those areas. Furthermore, issues related to privacy, trust, & data security tend to scare people away from getting online

Of the many promises of 5G, one of the most significant is cloud computing. Aside from the countless benefits of moving to the cloud, one of the most important is the ESG advantages with the “greenfield” nature of ICT. Cloud computing is a hot topic across the telco industry, especially in emerging markets. Referring to the consumption of infrastructure and application services on a utility basis and paid-per-unit consumed. In emerging markets, the cloud can address important challenges faced by local stakeholders (from individuals to larger enterprises) – availability of IT skills, capital constraints, and security risks.

Given the opportunity to potentially “leapfrog” to cloud computing, as early broadband access in developing countries exemplify, the socioeconomic advantages are immense.

While it is true that countries invest differently in core and access networks, telcos are in a position to promote that further in a more coherent manner. In some cases, these investments have not always delivered on the promise of economic development and that can be attributed to the lack of content and/or services available. Latency speeds may also differ from country to country, broadband speeds are adequate to run basic cloud services. The Cisco Global Cloud Index states that “the average fixed-consumer download speed in the Middle East and Africa is 1,691 kbps, and the average upload speed is 795 kbps. Some countries—for example, Egypt, South Africa, and the UAE—have developed their networks sufficiently to support intermediate cloud applications such as CRM, ERP, and basic video conferencing”. The Cloud makes both the creation and distribution of relevant applications and content simple and cost-effective in reaping the full potential of networks.

Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are nurseries for the larger ones of the future marketplace, which drive innovation within any economy especially developing ones. Cloud can enable and facilitate the operations of smaller businesses toward growth in more cost-effective ways, given the lack of SME investment in ICT. The fact that most handheld or computer devices today can access the cloud creates further efficiencies for the user no matter where they are in the world.

As challenging as the solution is to bridge the digital divide, the roadmap and devices are already available to deploy. The only thing missing now is the manpower behind it to steer it to the desired destination.

Learn more

World Bank: Exploring the Relationship Between Broadband and Economic Growth
  • PDF
Cisco: Cloud Computing and the Digital Divide Transforming SMBs in Emerging Markets
  • PDF

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